It's not the first time that a film is made on the Devadasis, and I guess it wouldn't be the last either. Writer G S Anil and director Padmakumar set up their tale on the unfortunate women in the state of Odisha who are destined to live a life of servitude for no fault of their own.
The year is 1980, and Christudas (Unni MUkundan), a young police man from Kerala is posted in Orissa. He is entrusted with the special duty of being a bodyguard to an Odiya girl named Suneyi (Sanika Nambiar) at Ganjam. The girl has witnessed her mother being shot dead by the local chieftain (Nigel Akkara) for resisting against her daughter being turned into a Devadasi. The district collector however intervenes and jails the chieftain for an year, thereby offering Suneyi an year more of freedom and life.
The questions that a film like 'Orissa' present before us are many. For one, the Devadasi system was declared illegal by the Indian Government only in 1988, and even then it has been known to continue unabated in at least a few part of the country. It seems highly implausible hence that in 1980, in a highly tradition bound state like Orissa, a village chieftain with power and money to boot, was sentenced to jail for inducting a devadasi into his fold.
Perhaps what makes it unbelievable is the way the character of Meera Bai (Tanushree Ghosh) has been penned. A mere five years after having observed Womens' Day (which was started in 1975), here is a social activist who is dejected that things haven't changed for women in India! I wonder what she would have said if she saw what women were dealing with in 2013!
'Orissa' is a terribly paced film that takes a lot of time to reach where it intends to. Not all slow paced films are uninteresting, but here the lethargy seeps into you slowly, making you wish that the couple fell in love a bit a faster, ran away a bit faster, and that time itself flew a bit faster.
Another downer is the dialogues, most of which are in the Odiya language with a voiceover in Malayalam and subtitles as accompaniments and what not. Perhaps it's impossible otherwise to construct the dialogues sensibly but they do mar the proceedings.
One does understand every bit of the trauma that each of these characters go through, and yet when you fail to sympathize with them, you realize that something is wrong with the way they have been created. They are very much there before you, in all flesh and blood, and it's as good as if they were invisible.
Unni Mukundan is quite fine as Christudas, though this is a role that does not require any miraculous efforts from the young actor. He looks remarkably good, but as the older man he does look a bit awkward. Sanika Nambiar is an Odiya girl all right when it comes to her appearance, and does impress in at least a couple of scenes.
All said and done, 'Orissa' does remain a beautiful film visually. The rustic locales are all virgin, and Vinod Illambally's frames are purely magical. The arid planes of Ganjam are brought to life with an irresistible charm by the cinematographer, even as the putrid scent of blood and tears remain fresh in the air.
The earnestness and the heart in its making is obvious in 'Orissa'. How sad that very little of it is actually passed on to the audience, which is why 'Orissa' is a stunningly visualized film that is agonizingly dull.